So Long to Social Class: Disrupted Hierarchy in The Grand Budapest Hotel

The film The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson, is based around a legendary concierge from a famous hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, Gustave H, who is framed for murder. In a desperate attempt to prove his innocence, Gustave teams up with his lobby boy, Zero Moustafa. The film is set at a demanding time between the first and second World Wars, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, and proves to challenge the relationship between an up-market concierge and a lobby boy – both with extremely differing backgrounds. Throughout the encounters that Gustave and Zero take in order to proclaim Gustaves innocence, Gustave realises that Zero is not just a low-end lobby boy and begins to build a friendship with him. Similarly, Zero begins to see Gustave as a role model and continues to learn from him throughout the film. Through the use of motifs such as sound and symbolism, Wes Anderson develops the important idea that breaking down social hierarchy helps people to further understand each other. Sound techniques are used throughout the film by director Wes Anderson to highlight a progressive friendship forming between Gustave and Zero. In a time of desperation, when Zero is helping Gustave break out of prison, Gustave snaps at Zero snapping “In this high cultured society that could honestly have been fine without you.” Wes Anderson is devilishly sarcastic in using Gustave as a portrayal of the European upper-class. Through the use of diegetic sound between characters, the audience understands that Gustave and Zero come from extremely differing backgrounds. In popular terms a “high cultured society” is often the culture if an upper class and represents a broad cultural knowledge. Gustave attempts to prove himself to be the up-market, legendary concierge that he is and is quick to assume Zero to be a lower-class citizen in comparison. However, Gustaves supposed insult toward Zero was a desperate response in an extreme realisation that Gustave would be lost without Zero on his journey. Later, non-diegetic sound is used when the a siren blares, rocking the prison yard. Immediately, both Gustave and Zero are in a sense of panic and a state of disarray. However, their ability to act with urgency and evacuate quickly proves their friendship strengthening. The loud whiney prison alarm also serves as a reminder of the journey that Gustave and Zero have had up to this point and proves to be another obstacle in which they will overcome together, despite their differing backgrounds and social positions in society. This further proves the idea that breaking down social hierarchy can help people to bond. Later, diegetic sound is used to prove that there is no longer social hierarchy between Gustave and Zero when Zero tells Gustave “We’re brothers”. Zeros reference to Gustave as a brother highlights that Zero thinks of Gustave as someone close to him, as family to him and this reinforces the strong bond between the two. Though at the beginning of the film Gustave had significant social hierarchy over Zero, throughout the obstacles that they overcame together, Zero and Gustave were a able to form a progressive bond and begin to further understand each other. Zeros reference to Gustave as a ‘brother’ serves to highlight the cogent bond between the two that has resulted from the breakdown of social hierarchy. Anderson uses symbolism through the crossed keys, ‘Mendl’s’ and ‘L’Air de Panache’ in the film to further reinforce the idea that people are able to understand each other further when social hierarchy is broken down. Anderson highlights that the crossed key symbol was taken “directly from Zweig’s own life and work” in a film interview he did with George Prochnik. The crossed keys symbol was taken from Stefan Zweigs novel “The society of the crossed keys.” Then crossed keys are a symbol throughout the film of a secret society, and represent keys used behind the concierge desk – which unlock and lock hotel rooms. The keys also are used to represent the management and leadership that is necessary as a concierge and the responsibility to please and care for hotel guests. However, keys themselves are a symbol of unlocking something, providing security. The crossed keys are also used to symbolise unity, similar to the unity and security between characters in the film. Gustave and Zero have the ability to unlock and remove each others ranked facade in order to understand each other. Similarly, Gustave removes his high-ranked facade when he is in prison to understand and befriend his fellow inmates. The crossed keys serve to remind the audience that if social hierarchy is removed, people are able to understand each other further. ‘Mendl’s’ is a shop in the film that presents delicate pastries, however in the film it is used as a symbol of deception.

Mendl’s pastries were not only used in the film to smuggle tools into prison, to aid Gustave’s escape, but also used as Gustave and Zero also disguise themselves as Mendl’s employees in the film. Most importantly Mendl’s represents the deceptive facades of characters in the film and serves to reinforce the differing social rankings in the film. Mendl’s represents characters such as Gustave, who appears vapid and shallow in his up-market rank in society, yet when he forms relationships with Zero, prison inmates and hotel guests his true substance, bravery and loyalty is shown. Mendl’s reminds us to look beyond a facade, in order to truly understand people. ‘Mendl’s’ itself on the surface appears to be a light, perfectly presented iced delicacy, however the filling is described to be rich and substantial. L’Air de Panache is Gustave’s favorite perfume in the film and a symbol of his reputation. L’Air de Panache is described to be a powerful scent and together with its fancy French name, it compliments Gustave’s upmarket and posh demeanor. Mustafa describes the scent that Gustave leaves, “the scent announced his approach from a great distance and lingered for many minutes after he was gone.” L’Air de Panache is a representation of the social hierarchy between Gustave and Zero throughout the film. After Zero helps Gustave escape from prison, Zero’s forgetting to bring a bottle of his signature scent enrages Gustave. Without the L’Air de Panache, it seems as if the social hierarchy between the two has been brought down. The lack of Gustave’s signature scent begins his invective insults upon Zero, promoting Zero to open up to Gustave, which later makes Gustave beg for exoneration and learn to love Zero as a brother. After they bond, Gustave shares a new bottle of L’Air with Zero, symbolizing their new brotherhood and their ability to break down the social hierarchy that was once between them. This further develops the important idea that breaking down social hierarchy helps people to understand each other further. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson successfully uses motifs such as sound techniques and symbolism to highlight a social pecking order in society and also serve to prove that social stance can be broken down. As a result, the audience develops the important idea that people can gain further understanding of each other if social hierarchy is broken down. Throughout history, social ranking has been an extremely influential part of society. Today, in our everyday routines it is easy to forget that modern social issues are on the rise around us – including poverty and the refugee crisis. Many people are oblivious to the fact that with these issues comes a social ranking that remains an extremely prominent part of society. Anderson challenges the reader to remove your social facade and to attempt to get to know someone from a different social ranking to you. Stefan Zweig, inspiration for the film, symbolises this with his idea of European sophistication that vanished with the Nazis’ rise to power throughout many of his writings. Social hierarchy should not undermine the human ability to share and understand each other’s knowledge, wisdom and culture to further enrich the progressing modern day world that we live in today.